By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Senate Democrats plan to fight some of President-elect Donald Trump’s choices for top administration jobs, but history and the party’s minority status in the chamber are not on their side.
A simple majority of 51 votes is needed in the 100-member Senate to confirm nominations. Louisiana will select its newest senator on Saturday. If the Republicans, as expected, hold on to the seat, they will control at least 52 seats in the chamber next year.
Senate Republicans said on Thursday they were confident of winning Cabinet confirmations early next year.
Nonetheless, some Democrats said they hoped to persuade a few Republicans to help them block a Trump nominee or two, following the Republican Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, when a newly installed Senate starts reviewing his nominations.
That could be just brave talk from Democrats. The Senate has rejected only nine of 719 Cabinet nominations in U.S. history, not counting nominees who have withdrawn when facing certain defeat, according to congressional records.
The last rejection was in 1989, when the Senate blocked Republican President George H.W. Bush’s nomination of Senator John Tower to be defense secretary. In 2013, Democratic President Barack Obama had trouble getting Chuck Hagel confirmed as defense secretary, but he ultimately prevailed.
This time around, Democrats said their top targets included U.S. Representative Tom Price as head of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as Environmental Protection Agency administrator.
Former New York investment banker and hedge fund investor Steven Mnuchin, tapped by Trump to become Treasury secretary, is also drawing the ire of Democrats, who will be in the minority in both the new Senate and House of Representatives in 2017.
Trump’s path toward Senate confirmations of nominees will be easier than the one faced by most of his predecessors.
In 2013, Senate Democrats, frustrated by Republicans blocking Obama’s choices for federal judges, used their majority status at the time to eliminate “filibusters” against executive and judicial branch nominations, except the Supreme Court. That meant only 51 votes were needed for confirmations, rather than 60.
PRUITT, PRICE, SESSIONS
Pruitt is a climate change skeptic who has participated in lawsuits trying to stop the EPA from carrying out clean-air regulations. As a nominee, he will embody “the fossil fuel and anti-clean air and clean water movement. … I like those odds,” Democratic Senator Edward Markey said of the fight ahead.
In 2009, when in the House, Markey was a leader in the fight for legislation to control greenhouse gas emissions.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who was an ally at the time in that failed battle, said in a brief interview that while he did not know Pruitt: “I appreciate his passion for fighting back against things he thought were an overreach” by federal agencies.
Price is high on the Democrats’ target list, according to a senior Senate Democratic aide, who asked not to be identified,
Defending Medicare, the federal healthcare program for the elderly, is a top priority of congressional Democrats. Price supports limiting some Medicare benefits.
He also opposes government funding for women’s healthcare provider Planned Parenthood. That could help Democrats win support for blocking Price from moderate Republicans such as Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski, the senior aide said.
A spokeswoman for Murkowski said she had not expressed an opinion on the Price nomination. Collins and her aides were not immediately available for comment.
A second senior Senate Democratic aide said some Republicans up for re-election in 2018 could be uncomfortable voting for Price because of his Medicare stance.
But Graham said Price “has been the heart and soul of the Republican alternative to Obamacare. I can’t imagine any Republican voting against him.”
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions has been chosen by Trump to be attorney general. Democrats plan to highlight his hardline stances on illegal immigration, as well as remind colleagues that a Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Sessions’ nomination for a federal judgeship in 1986 amid allegations that he had made racist remarks, which he denied.
If the debate stokes strong opposition to Sessions, Republicans might have to scramble to win his confirmation.
That could especially be true if the Alabama lawmaker follows a long-held practice of senators of merely voting “present” on their own confirmations, meaning Democrats would be one vote closer to defeating him.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney)